Red Twin continues her guest series on what life is like in the first year of living cross-culturally. Her experiences are from Central Asia but many of them resonated with us as well. Suggestions for how to support cross-cultural workers are in italics. Part One went up earlier this week and the final part will post next week.
Being halfway competent
This concept of half competency with language extends to other areas as well. I remember walking down the street in the capital of my country one day. I was feeling pretty excited to be in that city, where I was allowed to walk on the street, and I was on a cross-cultural mission of independence – finding my own toothbrush and toothpaste! Here’s what happened:
My sense are overloaded, but I know what I’m doing. There are people everywhere, but they keep their distance – no one touches the foreigner. My nose twitches from the fragrance of fresh bread, perfumes, kebab barbeque smoke and petrol. And occasionally, the reek of the sewer rises up before me and I breathe out. Having been here before, I know the importance of walking in a straight line. One lazy step could mean a slip into the 5 foot sewer on the side of the road. As I pass each new shop, my eyes scan it, and at last, I spy the blue and red colour combination of the toothpaste package. Not making eye contact with the shopkeeper, I tell him what I want, bargain the price down from the foreigner inflation and pay. I leave, feeling quite impressed with myself and my newly acquired know-how.
Just then, a short man is shoved from out of a shop. He stumbles and falls beneath the hand of the teenage boy as his friends jeer and laugh. The man tries to continue on his way, but the boy pursues him, hitting him over the head and mocking him. As I walk behind them, I wonder what crime this man has committed that he would allow a young buck to treat him with such disrespect. As he suffers another blow, his face turns towards mine, and I glimpse his brows which are too thick and his eyes too close together, and the pigmentation of his skin, which betrays ill-care. Garbled words are his attempted response to his attackers, but they only incite more curses, for they betray his crime: he is intellectually disabled. One of the helpless in society, in need of protection. Everything within me screams to stop this abuse, but I am paralysed by ignorance. I don’t know how to help. And I’m fearful of what might happen if I help wrong. I walk on by.
That’s the life of the first year. You learn so much and become competent in so many areas, and then EVERY DAY, something happens and you don’t understand what happened, let alone know how to respond. Just as you think you’re getting the hang of it, you realize you’re still a social pariah. So you feel 100% incompetent, 100% of the time for months and months on end.
It was the best thing ever when I went to Tanzania and was longing to be back in Central Asia where I knew what was going on. I realized I was much more competent in Central Asia than I had previously thought. I was 100% incompetent in Tanzania – and maybe only 60% incompetent in Central Asia!
That person who originally made the comment about being a half-person followed it up with “Be welcome. Be half-people as long as you need to be.” Because it does take a long time. And when you’re in the middle of it, it’s hard to see the progress. So let me encourage you to read between the lines of the newsletter and emails from cross-cultural workers. See what new things they’ve mentioned doing this month that they couldn’t do last month. And celebrate it with them! Allow them the space to admit perceived incompetence, but highlight the wins for them as well!
Half the energy
Of course, all of that extra effort to be even minimally competent means that you end up with half the energy. Because you can never switch off. Nothing is easy. Everything is work because everything is different. Each of the cross-cultural workers I talked to mentioned the exhaustion of logistics – Where do I buy furniture? Why does it matter that I paid 10 cents extra for the milk? Getting the key to the laundry room was a major expedition. For me in Central Asia, it means only eating certain foods when I don’t have anything urgent for the next week or so – in case I get sick. It means that each time I leave the house, even if I’m going to hang out with expats, or even if I’m wearing a massive veil, I have to ask myself “Would I be happy to be kidnapped in this outfit?”
A trip to get peanut butter involves a week of negotiating with friends to find someone who will come, and then getting security clearance for it, several phone calls to safe taxi drivers to find one who is free and will wait for us while we shop, multiple security text messages to update on our position, and selecting an outfit that will allow me to hold my own items, without people seeing past my wrists. All for peanut butter! Nothing is easy!
And all of that wears you down and leaves you with less energy for the things that you love, that give you energy – for exercise and reading and hanging out with other people. And even when you do have the energy, those leisure activities are also different, so they’ve not as life-giving as they used to be.
So you end up with half-emotions too. You’re not really sad, you’re just a bit down. A bit gray. Kind of like a mild misery. You still laugh at things. You still get happy. You still function completely normally. You feel much more settled and at home than you did in the early months. But everything is pervaded by this gray-ness. I wrote this in my journal:
I wonder if that’s just what life is like here. It’s okay, but it’s not happy. With all the other energy I’m expending, I wonder if it’s possible to really feel happy here. Maybe that’s just what life is here – just that little bit less easy, and so that little bit less happy.
Here’s the thing. It seems to hit approximately around the 8/9/10 month mark. About the same time that support begins to drop off. The excitement of the new location is done, people back in Australia have run out of things to ask and feel awkward about sending another email, and it all seems a bit distant. So on top of the half-emotions, it feels like half-support. It’s not of course, but it feels that way.
So here’s my suggestion for you. If you have a cross-cultural worker who you’re supporting, mark in your diary, 8 months after they’re back in their ministry environment. And send an email or send an e-card, or arrange for a package to arrive about that time. It probably won’t fix the gray-ness, but it will help the cross-cultural worker to realize that they’re not alone while they feel gray. And it reminds them that people in Australia believe in what they’re doing, and it gives them the oomf to push on.
At this point, I have to acknowledge, that I may well be the best-supported cross-cultural worker in the history of the world! One of the advantages of having gone short-term for 6 months, is that I knew much better the specifics of what I would need to make long-term work viable for me. So I could communicate that on my pre-departure deputation, and my supporters have been a particularly supportive lot! The CMS structure is also set up to support cross-cultural worker exceptionally well, if they take advantage of the resources on offer. I have had so many conversations where my other cross-cultural worker friends in Central Asia have felt unsupported and they say to me “How do you deal with this problem, Red Twin?” and I’ve had to say “Actually I’ve never encountered that situation, because the structural stuff in CMS prevents a lot of those problems from ever developing.”
So I know the difference it makes to have such good support at those gray times. But it seems that most of the people I talked to didn’t know the details of the challenges they would face in their location, and couldn’t communicate that to supporters pre-departure, and it’s been much harder to come through the gray-period. You do get through it, and find that joy again, but that 8/9/10 month mark is critical.
Image credit: Doll by Beth
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.